PARIS (AFP) - A French court Tuesday suspended the trial of former president Jacques Chirac on charges of embezzling public funds as mayor of Paris in the 1990s, drawing criticism from anti-corruption campaigners. Chirac, 78, the first former French president ever to go on trial, is accused of using the money to pay people working for his party ahead of his successful 1995 election bid. He has denied knowledge of any illegal payments. Presiding judge Dominique Pauthe said he was suspending the hearings so that constitutional authorities can examine whether certain charges that date back nearly two decades are still admissible. Chirac is the first French former head of state to face criminal charges since the leader of the collaborationist wartime regime, Marshal Philippe Petain, was convicted of treason after World War II. He is one of France's most popular political figures, best known abroad for opposing the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. Chirac did not attend the first hearings in the case on Monday and Tuesday. The current trial is the result of the merging of two separate cases -- one begun by magistrates in the Paris suburb of Nanterre in 1995, and another in Paris itself launched in 1998. The judge agreed to a call by a lawyer for one of Chirac's co-defendants that the constitutional court be consulted to rule whether charges in the latter case were still admissible -- a process that may take several months. In a statement from his office, Chirac denied claims that he was behind the motion to postpone the trial, which was made by Jean-Yves Le Borgne, acting for one of Chirac's former chiefs of staff. Pauthe proposed that hearings in both cases be rescheduled for around June 20 pending a constitutional ruling. Paris mayor from 1977 to 1995, Chirac has been linked to a series of corruption scandals but never convicted. He had immunity from prosecution as president from 1995 to 2007. If found guilty this time, he faces up to 10 years in jail and a fine of 150,000 euros ($210,000) on charges including embezzlement and breach of trust. Current Foreign Minister Alain Juppe was convicted in the current affair in 2004. Global anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International condemned this last-minute move as "very bad news" and said shortening the time limit to prosecute in such cases undermined efforts to fight graft. It "risks reinforcing the feeling, ever more widespread among the French, of a two-speed justice system where the law is used for the benefit of a class of privileged citizens," the NGO's French branch said in a statement. Nine other people are on trial alongside Chirac, accused either of occupying ghost jobs or benefiting from those of town hall employees. Among them is Francois Debre, whose brother Jean-Louis is chairman of the Constitutional Council which now could determine the case. Chirac denies that the people employed in the jobs worked on preparing for the 1995 presidential election, which he went on to win, insisting they were all legitimate posts in the service of Paris. State prosecutors, who are under the hierarchical authority of the government, have called for the case to be dismissed, raising the likelihood that Chirac will avoid conviction. Paris city hall last year dropped its civil charges against Chirac in return for a payment of more than 2.2 million euros, from him and the right-wing UMP party. Chirac paid more than half a million euros of this from his own pocket but did not acknowledge any wrongdoing. Anti-corruption campaigners are still bringing separate civil charges. "This is a true denial of justice," Jerome Karsenti, lawyer for one of these civil plaintiffs, anti-corruption group Anticor, told reporters outside the court. "Today we see that there really is a two-speed justice system."